Since the Saudi-led coalition started their aerial assaults on Yemen on 26th March 2015, there has been an effective blockade of most goods entering Yemen, the rationale being a weapons blockade against the Houthi-Saleh alliance. As in all blockades, the people who suffer are not those fighting because they have most control of resources and take first pick. Instead the civilian population is vulnerable, especially women, the young, old and sick. Before the war, Yemen relied on 90% of its necessary goods as imports, so the Saudi-led blockade rapidly turned the conflict into a matter of survival for all civilians, whether in a conflict zone or not. With only 1% of Yemen’s oil needs being allowed to enter Yemen almost immediately water became a serious issue as virtually all water in Yemen is pumped from deep wells. Additionally, this severe shortage of oil and diesel has meant that in most parts of Yemen there has been no electricity for many months, except in Eastern Yemen which is under Al Qaeda control and receives its oil from Mukalla port; and since July 2015 when parts of the southwest were recaptured from the Houthi-Saleh alliance, Aden has been allowed to import oil. However, even in these areas electricity supply is sporadic. Hence there has also been no means of storing perishable food, and costs of moving food and other essential items across Yemen has caused food prices to increase dramatically. Producing food internally has become expensive as diesel is needed for water irrigation purposes, and for many farms this cost has been prohibitive and production has ceased. Additionally most companies in Yemen have been forced to close down due to insecurity or lack of resources, resulting in widespread unemployment within Yemen, making food unaffordable for many families.
Additionally, food producers, suppliers, transporters and retailers have not been spared from aerial assaults. According to the Legal Center for Rights and Development in Sana’a, in the first 300 days of war, ten ports, fourteen airports, and 512 roads and bridges were struck by the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes making it more difficult to import and transport goods to where they are needed. This is severely aggravated by the destruction of 238 fuel stations, 175 fuel tankers and 409 food trucks. Direct food retailers have also been targeted including 353 markets and malls, and 546 food stores. Domestic, commercial and agricultural water supplies have been challenged by 164 hits on reservoirs and water networks, and many of the 190 factories that were destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition were producing food and drinks, such as a Yoghurt factory in Hodeida, a snack factory in Sana’a, a Coca Cola plant in Sana’a, a fruit juice factory in Hodeida, and a water bottling factory in Amran. Farms have also been targeted with 125 poultry farms hit, and an agricultural research centre in Wadi Sardol near Hodeida destroyed. 7 grain silos have been obliterated, and other food warehouses destroyed. At least one dairy/beef herd has also been targeted. Fishermen in the Red Sea have been targeted several times. Each of these aerial assaults has a cost, for example, Mohammed Derham owned a fruit juice and soft drinks factory in Hodeida that was destroyed by air to ground missiles, sustaining damage worth twenty million US dollars, and forcing 1,500 employees to lose their jobs. Some of these food producers and processors had been struggling to function under very severe conditions out of humanitarian concern for their employees and Yemeni civilians; others were closed due to the impossibilities of obtaining resources for production but had expected to restart when the situation improved. There has also been a human cost; for example, in the destruction of a water bottling plant in Abs in the northwest, 13 workers lost their lives and in one strike on two islands in the Red Sea, 40 fishermen were killed. This loss of plant and equipment for food production is a serious issue for the duration of the war and after hostilities end.
In certain areas this has been aggravated by local siege by the Houthi-Saleh militias who like Saudi Arabia have used deprivation as a weapon of war; in Aden at the beginning of the hostilities until July 2015, and in Taiz from June 2015 until January 2016. The Aden ordeal was ended when the Saudi-led coalition ground forces drove out the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and allowed delivery of humanitarian aid; the only Yemeni port where Saudi Arabia is not restricting imports. The Taiz siege was helped by food deliveries to a nearby town after an agreement between the warring parties, but this required the locals from the city of Taiz to walk through mountain passes carrying food packages back to their homes; fortunately recent reports say that food has now been delivered into Taiz itself. Although they had the means to do so, the Saudi led coalition did not air drop food directly into Taiz until mid-January when they stated that they had dropped 40 tons of humanitarian supplies; however, some parties dispute this.
An additional problem is the acute shortage of cooking fuel. In some families the only source of cooking fuel available since the start of hostilities is wood, but Yemen is not a densely-wooded land and this will have environmental repercussions; the supply is limited and cannot continue indefinitely. Cooking gas, produced locally, is in reduced supply and expensive. The shortages of cooking fuel means that unclean water cannot be sterilised by boiling, leading to more water borne diseases and diarrhoea and increasing the impact of nutritional deficiencies particularly relevant in small children.
What further impacts the nutritional deficiencies is the lack of available medical care. 58% of Yemenis (14 million people) had very limited or no access to health care facilities by January 2016, either because they had been destroyed (238 units including 69 hospitals), or because of the shortage of fuel, water, and medical supplies (600 units), or because of the lack of staff. The World Health Organisation describes the Yemen healthcare system as in a state of collapse. After numerous medical facilities had been targeted, the charity MSF stated that people and staff were frightened to attend hospitals except in cases of extreme emergency. MSF claim that they had provided the Saudi led coalition with all of the coordinates of their hospitals, but despite this three of their health facilities were destroyed in as many months.
The effect on the population has been devastating. In a BBC documentary, a family in the northwest of Yemen stated that they now only had grass to eat. They feared dying of starvation more than dying by bombs, because at least in a bombing raid they would all die together. According to the Famine Early Warning System Network, elevated prices for staples and reduced income opportunities are driving major assistance needs in Yemen. In the quarter October-December 2015, all of Yemen was Acutely Food Insecure, either level 3 or 4; level 5 is famine. This had worsened since July-September, when Eastern Yemen was only at level 2, but decreased incomes, inflated prices, virtual standstill of exports, and two severe cyclones having taken their toll on the East, which although controlled by extremist militias has so far been relatively free of conflict and not so affected by the blockade. The only area that has improved from a nutritional viewpoint is Aden which has received significant quantities of humanitarian aid since the port reopened in autumn 2015, with water supplies much improved, although the unstable security there is threatening this improvement.
In January 2016 a representative of UNICEF in Sanaa told me that 300,000 children under five years of age are estimated to suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition and a further one million suffer from Moderate Acute Malnutrition; made worse as 192 nutrition centres are no longer operating in Yemen. In some areas parents are treating children with nutritional problems at home – or worse, in their temporary shelters – including intravenous fluid replacement therapy, which has inherent dangers when inexperienced people infuse fluids into small children.
From time to time international organisations have made occasional appeals on behalf of Yemen, but I can find no significant press releases from any organisation since October 2015 except in the case of Taiz, thanks to a concerted campaign by activists inside Taiz and Saudi Arabian spokespersons who support the Islah militias in Taiz. Although the situation is dire in Taiz because of a ferocious ground war and undoubtedly there have been serious deprivations, ironically the humanitarian situation may be worse in other areas that have had no international spokespersons speaking on their behalf.
Yemen is in the grip of a civil war; fundamentally a contest for power between the divisive and deposed ex-President Saleh, and the unpopular Interim President Hadi, whose fixed term presidency had expired. The International community headed by Saudi Arabia states its determination to re-impose Hadi on Yemen as the ‘legitimate’ President, and have taken on destruction of Yemen and starvation of its population in pursuit of that unpopular objective. The generous and hospitable people of Yemen did not want war, and did nothing to deserve what happened to them; the first most Yemenis knew that they were at war was when terrifying bombs were unexpectedly dropped on them one night by a foreign power; in many areas this has continued on a daily basis ever since. But the blockade has probably resulted in more deaths than the violence, and these are unrecorded and not publicised. Yemeni people have suffered immensely, and have shown amazing powers of resourcefulness and community mindedness to support each other through this hell that is Yemen today. Unlike Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, they are trapped inside war, borders are fenced and tightly controlled, and no countries will allow them to travel without a visa – and there are very few embassies left in Yemen to apply for one. I heard a story today of a landlord who found a widow and her two children dead from starvation inside a room they had rented from him. How many more will have to die like this before the world opens its eyes and realises this collective punishment is being imposed on the Yemeni civilian population, about half of whom are less than 18 years old.